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24 February 2022

The chaotic life and bruising songs of Mark Lanegan

The musician survived addiction and the excesses of the 1990s grunge scene to leave behind a legacy of creativity and compassion.

By Jude Rogers

When news of Mark Lanegan’s death at 57 broke on 22 February, social media filled with tributes to the singer-songwriter, a survivor of the 1990s Seattle grunge scene who had in the past two decades miraculously transformed his life and career. The drug-smothered details of his earlier years weren’t the focus of most of the appreciations. Instead it was his music: 25 years of it made while he was sober, spanning soul, the blues, country, disco, piano ballads and even covers of Bond themes, all of them delivered in his bruised, soulful baritone. I bet that’s how he’d have wanted it.

I met Lanegan in December 2019, four months before the publication of Sing Backwards and Weep, an extraordinary memoir that laid bare the brutal chaos of his life. Despite Lanegan being far from a household name, the book became a Sunday Times bestseller, its writing packed with full-blooded details, gallows humour and gorgeous, no-nonsense lyricism. Born in 1964 in Ellensburg, Washington, a hundred miles east of Seattle, Lanegan suffered childhood abuse and neglect, and became an alcoholic aged 12. In his memoir he documented how seeing a magazine cover featuring one of his heroes, Iggy Pop, changed his life, and the messy tale of his first band, the pioneering grunge group Screaming Trees, who never broke big as Nirvana and Pearl Jam did, despite influencing them both. The band offered a way for Lanegan to escape from his life, he said, before it became the vehicle to earn him money to buy heroin.

Then things got darker. He writes of how, one day in April 1994, one of Lanegan’s dearest friends, Kurt Cobain – the two were close long before Nirvana’s huge fame – wouldn’t stop calling, begging Lanegan to call him back. He didn’t. Cobain killed himself the next morning. Twenty-five years later, Lanegan still clearly bore the scars of that memory.

When I interviewed him, he didn’t want to discuss that passage in the book, or, indeed, the book at all. Instead, he sat backstage in London’s Roundhouse looking numb, surrounded by the icy-white bulbs of the vanity mirror, his face all impressive crags, a wrinkled Easter Island statue wearing heavy-framed glasses. He had written this memoir to not have “to go over the past again”, he said, a comment which made my assignment near-impossible.

But I understood. A year earlier, he had spoken to me about another dear friend he’d lost to suicide, the chef Anthony Bourdain, for a newspaper obituary (Bourdain had also encouraged Lanegan to write his memoir). I had been overwhelmed by his tenderness and pain as his words seemed to pour through the phone. In the Roundhouse, he also thawed when I asked him about Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, who had paid for the year of rehab which fixed Lanegan (he had been clean for around two decades when we met). She once called him “Seattle’s Nick Cave”, which is a perfect sobriquet for the combination of hellfire and compassion in his songs.

One reason for his numbness that night at the Roundhouse, he told me later, was the terrifying prospect of a headline show before thousands (he apologised to me profusely for his mood, something that underlined his gallantry). That he could sell out such a venue despite his lack of mainstream recognition spoke volumes, too. It showed how much his music had affected people and created a fan-base of loyal followers.

Lanegan’s early solo albums created a unique, twisted country blues, coupled with raw, often biblically deep lyrics. Then came his surprising 1999 covers album, I’ll Take Care of You, including takes on Booker T & the MGs, the folk music of Tim Hardin and the Fifties R&B of Brook Benton, before he became a pivotal member of the stadium rock band Queens of the Stone Age alongside Josh Homme and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl. He formed a duo with the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian’s sweet-voiced Isobel Campbell, and did a stint as the frontman of the British electronic group Soulsavers. He collaborated often: with PJ Harvey, Massive Attack, Moby, Tinariwen and, most recently, the Manic Street Preachers on their 2021 album The Ultra Vivid Lament.

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In recent years his creativity only grew. After his memoir was published, Lanegan released his best solo album to date, Straight Songs of Sorrow; wrote a collection of poetry in lockdown (Leaving California, published in 2021 by Heartworm Press); and created more music with his second wife, Shelley Brien, in their goth-techno duo Black Phoebe. In late 2020 the couple decamped from the US to Killarney, Ireland, where Lanegan had family connections. He liked the peace and the landscape. “These are my people,” he told Spin magazine. He was in a good place, in all senses.

In March 2021 Lanegan caught Covid-19, and was hospitalised for three months; as he recovered he wrote a feverish book about the experience, Devil in a Coma, which was, in a high-speed turnaround, published in December. That death has beaten Lanegan so soon after that recovery, when he was still hitting artistic highs, seems especially cruel. “All the meaningless, stressful bullshit that seems so important when you’re young has ceased to matter,” he told me just over two years ago. “Turns out, I’m quite happy to be getting old.” Let’s allow the spirit of his last years to define him.

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